Obama Renews Focus on Southeast Asia

Barack Obama will signal yet another break with his predecessor's foreign policy this week when he takes his first presidential trip to Asia. While the Bush administration focused almost exclusively on the big players like China and India, Obama is very deliberately focusing on smaller countries as well. In addition to stops in China, Japan, and South Korea, Obama will make the first visit by a U.S. president to meet leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This follows visits Hillary Clinton has already made to leading ASEAN member states, including Indonesia and Thailand, and it comes immediately after Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, last week became the highest-ranking U.S. official to hold talks in Burma in more than a decade. By comparison, Condoleezza Rice skipped two out of four ASEAN meetings. Douglas Paal at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that when Bush visited Indonesia after Sept. 11, he was "in and out as fast as he could" and focused almost exclusively in many countries on terrorism. As Bush came to dwell more and more on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Paal says, it started to send a message that the U.S. cared about these issues to the exclusion of all others.

Smaller Asian countries welcome the American attention, particularly as they grow increasingly concerned about China's expanding footprint in the region. China, says Paal, sends an official every quarter to every country in southeast Asia, and the United States has made little effort to counterbalance that influence. In late October, Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew made a speech in Washington in which he cited the impressive display of military might at China's recent National Day parade in Beijing as a warning. Saying that China "is not ready or willing to assume equal responsibility for managing the international system," Lee argued that "U.S. core interest requires that it remain the superior power" in the Pacific. Campbell's trip to Burma helps accomplish a similar goal, says Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Washington realized it has no interest in creating another North Korea--that is, a country so isolated by the U.S. that it turns to whomever is willing to work with it for support. China, for one, has been upping its presence in Burma. "Obama has begun to realize that Asia has come together in a way that had excluded America," says Tay. And that's not good for Asia or for the United States.